The Boy Commandos by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby volume 2


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5817-7

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off, two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with five years hard-earned experience in “real” publishing. He had worked from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an illustrator and art/photo retoucher.

With comicbooks exploding onto every newsstand, Simon – with a recommendation from his boss – joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering comics production “shop” Funnies Inc.: generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its groundbreaking star attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his explosive, imaginative stride with The Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon & Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, drew Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, invented a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a rather popular guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby promptly jumped ship to industry leader National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a mighty chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit and bursting with ideas the cautious company were not comfortable with, the pair were handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, the dynamic duo were left to their own devices and – returning to the “Kid Gang” genre they pioneered with Young Allies at Timely – drafted a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

The young warriors initially shared the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics but before long their solo title would frequently number amongst the company’s top three sellers…

Boy Commandos was such a soaring success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling American comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing the Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for the dreadful moment their star creators were called up.

With their talented studio team, S&K produced so much four-colour magic in a such a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get back to another time but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy second full-colour hardback (and eBook) compilation, re-presenting further exploits of the courageous and internationally diverse Young Lions from Detective Comics #74-83 and 85, World’s Finest Comics#10-13 and Boy Commandos #3-5.

Spanning April 1943 to March 1944, these tales comprise a superb salvo of stunning combat classics, bombastic blockbusters and cunning comedy capers that were at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil could never simply be just “Us & Them”…

We never learned how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to take a quartet of war-orphans with him on a never-ending succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Andre Chavard (originally dubbed “Pierre” before being unobtrusively renamed), little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only adults had given us a chance…

Following a scholarly and incisive appraisal from publisher John Morrow in his Introduction ‘Don’t Sit Out This War!’, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular reintroduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour and frustration entitled ‘The Trial of Captain Carter’ from Detective Comics #74 April 1943.

A truly tense drama, it sees the bold Captain risk disgrace and worse to cover up for a soldier under his command in a tale packed with tension and spectacle after which the heroes then challenged prejudices with the tale of a pacifist Scots farmer and the extraordinary events that led to his becoming a ‘Double for Death’ (Detective #75).

An astoundingly popular hit combo, the kids were also a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics too. From #10 (Summer 1943), ‘Message to Murmansk’ sees the juvenile terrors endure the hardships of convoy duty to Russia, and destroying a U-Boat base in Norway to prove to the Allies’ Red comrades hat they have not been forgotten…

The seemingly insatiable demand for fresh stories was partly assuaged by a quarterly solo title with Boy Commandos #3 (Summer 1943) offering a fabulous tranche of tales, beginning with ‘A Film from the Front …Uncensored’. Here, puny but fervent newsreel cameraman Spud Mattson goes far above and beyond his normal duties on a doomed mission to Greece…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of myth making and frequently sheer fantasy to the grim and grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. A perfect example is ‘War Album No. 1 – The Siege of Troy’ wherein the squad are transposed root and branch to the Trojan War where abducting scoundrel Paris is a dead ringer for Adolf Hitler. He suffers ignominious defeat there and then too…

Broad comedy leavens the turmoil of conflict in ‘Cyril Thwaites Rides Again, or, The Recruiting Sergeant Should Have Looked Twice!’ as a pompous and vainglorious weedy braggart is afforded the chance to change and determine the course of the war before a deadly faceless nemesis resurfaces in ‘The Return of Agent Axis’ only to be defeated and finally exposed by rip and the lads…

Detective Comics #76 (June 1943) afforded a guest-packed foray back to the USA as the Sandman & Sandy and the Newsboy Legion – with their masked Guardian – unite with a new gang of Kid Commandos to rescue Rip and Co. when they are kidnapped by Nazi spies planning ‘The Invasion of America’.

James Hilton’s Shangri-La is heavily referenced in ‘The Valley of Destiny’ (Detective #77) when super-advanced monks judge the worth and philosophy of the warring sides in the global conflict. The despicable but cunning Nazis seem to have the upper hand over the Boy Commandos but eventually everyone’s true nature is revealed…

Sheer dynamic bravado carries the tale from #78 as the team invade the heart of Europe to aid the German resistance and the broadcasters of ‘Freedom Station’

World’s Finest Comics #11 (Fall 1943) then find the globetrotting kids in Tunisia to winkle out diehard holdouts from Rommel’s defeated Afrika Korps in ‘Sand Dunes of Death!’ before Boy Commandos #4 (Fall 1943) offers a bold new kind of adventure in a book-length saga entitled ‘The Invasion of Europe!’.

‘Chapter One: Flames at Dawn!’ opens with the famous squad pre-empting D-Day in brutally prophetic fashion, blasting their way onto the beaches of France only to be separated from the main force and each other…

‘Chapter Two: Brooklyn Revere’s Ride!’ offers astounding drama and heartbreaking tragedy as the American warrior attempts to warn a French village and the Allied forces of a devasting German counter-offensive whilst ‘Chapter Three: The Madman of Mt. Cloud!’ finds Alfie sheltered by a brave matron before infiltrating a gothic asylum used by both the oppressors and the Resistance to extract secrets…

Apparently killed in a parachute drop, Dutch boy Jan links up with a trio of youthful freedom fighters led by a vengeful girl. ‘Chapter Four: Toinette the Terrible!’ sees them rescue the now-captured Boy Commandos before ‘Chapter Five: West Meets East’ drops into prose mode to detail the brief encounter between the kids and a very lost band of Russian aviators.

The ambitious and fanciful novel moves into finale mode for ‘Chapter Six: Bugle of the Brave!’ as the sacrifice of a true patriot unites his downtrodden countrymen in bloody rebellion against the Nazis before the stirring saga concludes with a speculative climax as ‘Chapter Seven: The Road to Berlin!’ carries the incensed and unstoppable forces of freedom to the gates of Berlin and a utopian future…

Over in Detective Comics #79 (September 1943) a short furlough ends when the boys find a dying Italian and learn of a scheme to murder all POWs. Before long a rescue is underway and when the team unite with ruthless Sicilian partisans ‘The Duce Gets a Hotfoot’

Scurrilous espionage at the heart of an English stately home reveals a shocking secret about ‘The Baronet of Bodkin Borders’ in Detective #80 whilst deadly vengeance informs a mission to Japanese-held Bataan in #81’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dynamite’. The mission is made the more memorable after Rip’s rascals meet a small band of American holdouts fighting a deadly guerrilla campaign behind the Tojo’s lines…

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) finds the lads incognito in seemingly-neutral Switzerland to track down hidden Nazi loot but their ‘Golden Victory’ accidentally takes them all the way to Berlin and a most satisfactory face to face meeting with the Fuhrer…

Boy Commandos #5 (Winter 1943-1944) opens with ‘Assignment in Norway’ as Andre gets lost on a raid and meets two women pilots of the unsung Bomber Ferry Command. Together they expose a hidden base and inflict another crushing blow on the hard-pressed Boche.

Supernatural retribution infuses ‘A Town to Remember’ as a mysterious officer commandeers the team and guides them to Czechoslovakia and the razed area where the citizens of Lidice were exterminated. Is it merely to save the last desperate hostages or is there another reason for the ill-starred raid?

On leave in London, the lads encounter ‘The Mysterious Mr. Mulani’ and trail what they consider to be the most inept spy they’ve ever seen. What a surprise when the incredible truth is revealed…

In a compelling foreshadowing of their later supernatural mystery yarns, Simon & Kirby – and their unheralded team of assistants – then disclose the eerie antics of a deadly powerbroker whose bargains with numerous influential Germans all come due at the same time as the Boy Commandos close in in the chilling ‘Satan to See You!

A true treat for those in-the-know, Detective Comics #82 (December 1943) features ‘The Romance of Rip Carter’: the tale of an indomitable bomber that refused to be shot down until her mission was accomplished. The plane was the “Rosalind K” and Jack had been married to wife Roz since May 1942…

Detective #83 mixed laughs with action as the boys prowled London hunting nefarious spies and an escaped music hall ape which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain American battle veteran. Sadly, when the curtain fell the villains’ downfall was ‘The Triumph of Cholly the Chimp’

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) offered another Home Front saga as a stolen racehorse led the lads to a ruthless criminal gang, heartfelt tragedy and ‘A Wreath for Sir Edgar of Wimpledowne’, before Detective #85 (issue #84 being a non-S&K fill-in by Joe Samachson & Louis Cazeneuve and not included here) brings the memorable missions to a close with ‘Curtain Call for Action’. Here the insidious Agent Axis returns yet again, taking over a touring USO show for the troops and attempting to substitute a Gestapo doppelganger for the army’s top general until Rip and the boys get stuck in…

Although I’ve rightly concentrated on the named stars, it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their most ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it showed Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Bombastic, blockbusting and astoundingly appetising, these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated comics aficionado should miss this classic collection.
© 1943, 1944, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 4


By Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Joseph Greene, Joe Samachson, Jack Schiff, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7130-5

The history of the American comicbook industry in most ways stems from the raw, vital and still compelling tales of two iconic creations published by DC/National Comics: Superman and Batman. It’s only fair and fitting that both those characters are still going strong and that their earliest adventures can be relived in chronological order in relatively cheap, and gloriously cheerful, compilations.

Debuting a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and latterly Robin, the Boy Wonder) confirmed DC/National Comics as the market frontrunner and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Steel, the physical mortal perfection and dashing derring-do of the strictly-human Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crime-busters were judged.

Batman: The Golden Age is a series of paperback feasts (there’s also weightier, pricier, more capacious hardback Omnibus editions available, and digital iterations too) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Presented in original publishing release order, the tomes trace the character’s growth into the icon who would inspire so many and develop the resilience needed to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes that coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.

Re-presenting astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #66-74, Batman #12-15 and pertinent stories from World’s Finest Comics #7-9, this book covers groundbreaking escapades from August 1942 to April 1943: as the Dynamic Duo continually develop and storm ahead of all competition.

As the heroes’ influence expanded, new talent joined the stable of creators. Jerry Robinson had already worked with writer Bill Finger and penciller Bob Kane, and during this period more scripters joined the ever-expanding team to detail adventures during the darkest days of World War II.

I’m certain it’s no coincidence that many of these Golden Age treasures are also some of the best and most reprinted tales in the Batman canon. With chief writer Bill Finger at a peak of creativity and production, everybody on the Home Front was keen to do their bit – even if that was simply making kids of all ages forget their troubles for a brief while…

This volume starts in grand style with the debut of a true classic villain as Finger, Kane & Robinson expose ‘The Crimes of Two-Face’ (Detective Comics #66): a classical tragedy in crime-caper form as Gotham DA Harvey Kent (whose name was later changed by editorial diktat to Dent) is disfigured in court and goes mad – becoming the conflicted thief and killer who remains one of the Caped Crusader’s greatest foes.

Batman #12 (August/September 1942) follows with another four classics. ‘Brothers in Crime’ – by Don Cameron & Robinson – reveals the tragic fates of a criminal family after which the Joker returns in ‘The Wizard of Words’ by Finger, Kane, Robinson and George Roussos.

Jack Burnley illustrated the spectacular daredevil drama ‘They Thrill to Conquer’ before ‘Around the Clock with Batman’ recounts a typical “day in the life” of the Dynamic Duo, complete with blazing guns, giant statues and skyscraper near-death experiences…

Then, from World’s Finest Comics #7 (Fall 1942), comes an imaginative thriller of chilly thrills and spills in ‘The North Pole Crimes!’ whilst Detective #67 features the Penguin as ‘Crime’s Early Bird!’, before Two-Face’s personal horror-story continues in ‘The Man Who Led a Double Life’ from #68.

Batman #13 (October/November 1942) tugged heartstrings when ‘The Batman Plays a Lone Hand’ but returned to more traditional ground after the Joker organized a ‘Comedy of Tears’ (by Jack Schiff, Kane, Robinson & Roussos). Although ‘The Story of the Seventeen Stones!’ (drawn by Burnley) then offered a deliciously experimental murder-mystery, the heroes slipped into comfortable Agatha Christie – or perhaps Hitchcock territory – as they tackled a portmanteau of crimes on a train in Cameron, Kane, Robinson and Roussos’ ‘Destination: Unknown!’ to close the issue.

Joseph Greene scripted the Joker’s next escapade in the astounding case of ‘The Harlequin’s Hoax!’ (Detective #68 before our heroes endure the decidedly different threat of ‘The Man Who Could Read Minds!’: another off-beat thriller from Cameron that premiered in Detective #70.

Cameron also wrote all four stories in Batman #14 (December 1942/January 1943). ‘The Case Batman Failed to Solve’ (illustrated by Jerry Robinson) is a superb example of the sheer decency of the Caped Crusader as he fudges a mystery for the best possible reason; ‘Prescription for Happiness’ (art by Bob Kane & Robinson) is a masterful example of the human-interest drama that used to typify Batman tales as a poor doctor discovers his own true worth, and ‘Swastika Over the White House!’ (Jack & Ray Burnley art) is typical of the spy-busting action yarns readers were gratuitously lapping up at the time.

The final story ‘Bargains in Banditry!’ – also from the Burnley boys – is another canny crime caper featuring fowl felon the Penguin.

Detective Comics #71 (January 1943, Finger, Kane & Robinson) featured ‘A Crime a Day!’ – one of the most memorable and thrilling Joker escapades of the period – whilst ‘Brothers in Law’ (by Schiff and the Burnleys from the Winter 1942 World’s Finest Comics #8) pits Batman and Robin against a Napoleon of Crime and feuding siblings who had radically differing definitions of justice…

Samachson, Kane & Robinson crafted Detective #72 which saw found our heroes crushing murderous con-men in ‘License for Larceny’ before Batman #15 (February/March 1943) lead with Schiff, Kane & Robinson’s Catwoman romp ‘Your Face is your Fortune!’ whilst Cameron and those Burnleys introduced plucky homeless boy Bobby Deen as ‘The Boy Who Wanted to be Robin!’

The same team concocted powerful propaganda tale ‘The Two Futures’, which examined an America under Nazi subjugation after which ‘The Loneliest Men in the World’ (Cameron, Kane & Robinson) was – and remains – one of the very best Christmas Batman tales ever created; full of pathos, drama, fellow-feeling and action…

Cameron, Kane & Robinson went back to spooky basics in Detective Comics#73 (March 1943) when ‘The Scarecrow Returns’, a moody chiller followed by the introduction of comical corpulent criminal psychopaths ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee!’ in #74, before this gripping volume concludes with the Batman portion of World’s Finest #9 (Spring 1943) as Finger, Robinson & Roussos recount the saga of a criminal mastermind who invented a sure-fire ‘Crime of the Month!’ scheme…

These are the stories that cemented the popularity of Batman and Robin and brought welcome surcease to millions during a time of tremendous hardship and crisis. Even if these days aren’t nearly as perilous or desperate – and there ain’t many who thinks otherwise! – the power of such work to rouse and charm is still potent and just as necessary. You owe it to yourself and your family and even your hamster to Buy This Book…
© 1942, 1943, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Metamorpho, the Element Man


By Bob Haney, Gardner Fox, Ramona Fradon, Joe Orlando, Sal Trapani, Charles Paris & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0762-5

By the time Metamorpho, the Element Man was introduced to the costumed hero-obsessed world the first vestiges of a certifiable boom were just becoming apparent. As such the light-hearted, almost absurdist take struck a Right-time, Right-place chord, blending far out adventure with tongue-in-cheek comedy.

The bold, brash Man of a Thousand Elements debuted in The Brave and the Bold #57 (December 1964/January 1965) and, after a follow-up try-out in the next issue, catapulted right into his own title for an eclectic and oddly engaging 17-issue run. Sadly, this canny monochrome compendium – collecting all those eccentric adventures plus team-up tales from B&B #66 and 68 and Justice League of America #42) – is currently the only archival collection available. Until someone rectifies that situation, at least you can revel in some truly enchanting black-&-white illustration…

Unlike most of these splendid Showcase editions, the team-up stories here are not re-presented in original publication order but closeted together at the back, so if stringent continuity is important to you, the always informative old-school credit-pages will enable you to navigate the wonderment in the correct sequence…

Sans dreary preamble the action commences with ‘The Origin of Metamorpho’ written by Bob Haney (who created the character and wrote everything here except the JLA story). The captivating art is by Ramona Fradon & Charles Paris and introduces glamorous he-man Soldier of Fortune Rex Mason, currently working as a globe-trotting artefact procurer and agent for ruthlessly acquisitive scientific genius/business tycoon Simon Stagg.

Mason is obnoxious and insolent but his biggest fault as far as his boss is concerned is that the mercenary dares to love and be loved by the millionaire’s only daughter Sapphire

Determined to rid himself of the impudent Mason, Stagg dispatches his potential son-in-law to retrieve a fantastic artefact dubbed the Orb of Ra from the lost pyramid of Ahk-Ton in Egypt. The tomb raider is accompanied only by Java, a previously fossilised Neanderthal corpse Rex had discovered in a swamp and which (whom?) Stagg had subsequently restored to full life. Mason plans to take his final fabulous fee and whisk Sapphire away from her controlling father forever, but fate and his companion have other ideas…

Utterly faithful to the scientific wizard who was his saviour, Java sabotages the mission and leaves Mason to die in the tomb, victim of an ancient, glowing meteor. The man-brute rushes back to his master, carrying the Orb and fully expecting Stagg to honour his promise and give him Sapphire in marriage…

Trapped, knowing his time has come; Mason swallows a suicide pill as the scorching rays of the star-stone burn through him…

Instead of death relieving his torment Rex is mutated into a ghastly chemical freak capable of shape-shifting and transforming into any of the elements or compounds that comprised the human body: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, iron, cobalt and so many others…

Hungry for vengeance, Mason follows and confronts his betrayers only to be overcome by the alien energies of the Orb of Ra. An uneasy détente is declared as Mason accepts Stagg’s desperate offer to cure him …“if possible”.

The plutocrat is further horrified when Rex reveals his condition to Sapphire and finds she still loves him. Totally unaware of Stagg’s true depths of duplicity, Mason starts working for the tycoon as metahuman problem-solver Metamorpho, the Element Man.

Brave and the Bold #58 (February-March 1965) reveals more of Stagg’s closeted skeletons when old partner Maxwell Tremayne kidnaps the Element Man and later abducts Sapphire to his ‘The Junkyard of Doom!’ Apparently, the deranged armaments manufacturer was once intimately acquainted with the girl’s mother and never quite got over it…

The try-out comics were an unqualified success and Metamorpho promptly debuted in his own title, cover-dated July-August 1965, just as the wildly tongue-in-cheek “High Camp” craze was catching on in all areas of popular culture; blending ironic vaudevillian kitsch with classic movie premises as theatrical mad scientists and scurrilous spies began to appear everywhere.

‘Attack of the Atomic Avenger’ sees nuclear nut-job Kurt Vornak trying to crush Stagg Industries, only to be turned into a deadly, planet-busting radioactive super-atom, after which ‘Terror from the Telstar’ pits the charismatic cast against Nicholas Balkan, a ruthless criminal boss set on sabotaging America’s Space Program.

Mad multi-millionaire T.T. Trumbull then uses his own daughter Zelda to get to Simon Stagg through his heart, accidentally proving to everyone who knew him that the old goat actually has one. This was part of the maniac’s attempt to seize control of America in ‘Who Stole the U.S.A.?’, but the ambitious would-be despot backed up the scheme with an incredible robot specifically designed to destroy Metamorpho.

Happily, Rex Mason’s guts and ingenuity proved more effective than the Element Man’s astonishing powers…

America saved, the dysfunctional family head South of the Border, becoming embroiled in ‘The Awesome Escapades of the Abominable Playboy’ as Stagg tries to marry Sapphire off to Latino Lothario Cha Cha Chavez. The wilful girl is simply trying to make Mason jealous and had no idea of her dad’s true plans; Stagg senior has no conception of Chavez’s real intentions or connections to the local tin-pot dictator…

With this issue the gloriously stylish Ramona Fradon left the series, to be replaced by two artists who strove to emulate her unique, gently madcap manner of drawing with varying degrees of success. Luckily veteran inker Charles Paris stayed on to smooth out the rough edges…

First up was E.C. veteran Joe Orlando whose 2-issue tenure began with outrageous doppelganger drama ‘Will the Real Metamorpho Please Stand Up?’ wherein eccentric architect Edifice K. Bulwark tries to convince Mason to lend his abilities to his chemical skyscraper project. When Metamorpho declines Bulwark and Stagg attempt to create their own Element Man… with predictably disastrous consequences.

‘Never Bet Against an Element Man!’ (#6 May-June 1966) took the team to the French Riviera as gambling grandee Achille Le Heele snookers Stagg and wins “ownership” of Metamorpho. The Creepy Conchon’s ultimate goal necessitated stealing the world’s seven greatest wonders (such as the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower) and, somehow, only the Element Man can make that happen…

Sal Trapani took over pencilling with #7’s ‘Terror from Fahrenheit 5,000!’ as the acronymic super-spy fad hits hard. Metamorpho is enlisted by the C.I.A. to stop suicidal maniac Otto Von Stuttgart destroying the entire planet by dropping a nuke into the Earth’s core, before costumed villain Doc Dread is countered by an undercover Metamorpho becoming ‘Element Man, Public Enemy!’ in a diabolical caper of doom and double-cross…

Metamorpho #9 shifted into the realm of classic fantasy when suave and sinister despot El Mantanzas maroons the cast in ‘The Valley That Time Forgot!’: battling cavemen and antediluvian alien automatons, after which a new catalysing element is added in ‘The Sinister Snares of Stingaree!’

This yarn introduces Urania Blackwell – a secret agent somehow transformed into an Element Girl and sharing all Metamorpho’s incredible abilities. Not only is she dedicated to eradicating evil such as criminal cabal Cyclops, but Urania is also the perfect paramour for Rex Mason…

He even cancels his wedding to Sapphire to go gang-busting with her…

With a new frisson of sexual chemistry sizzling beneath the surface, ‘They Came from Beyond?’ finds the conflicted Element Man confronting an apparent alien invasion whilst ‘The Trap of the Test-Tube Terrors!’ provides another attempt to cure Rex of his unwanted powers. This allows mad scientist Franz Zorb access to Stagg Industry labs long enough to build an army of chemical horrors…

The plot thickens with Zorb’s theft of a Nucleonic Moleculizer, prompting a continuation in #14 wherein Urania is abducted only to triumphantly experience ‘The Return from Limbo’

Events and stories grew increasingly outlandish and outrageous as the TV superhero craze intensified and ‘Enter the Thunderer!’ (#14, September/October 1967) depicted Rex pulled between Sapphire and Urania as marauding extraterrestrial Neutrog terrorises the planet in preparation for the awesome arrival of his mighty mutant master.

The next instalment heralded an ‘Hour of Armageddon!’ as the uniquely menacing Thunderer takes control of Earth until boy genius Billy Barton assists the Elemental defenders in defeating the mutant horror.

Trapani inked himself for Metamorpho #16; an homage to H. Rider Haggard’s She novels wherein ‘Jezeba, Queen of Fury!’ changes the Element Man’s life forever.

When Sapphire marries playboy Wally Bannister, the heartbroken Element Man undertakes a mission to find the lost city of Ma-Phoor. Here he encounters an undying beauty who wants to conquer the world and just happens to be Sapphire’s exact double.

Moreover, the immortal empress of a lost civilisation had once loved an Element Man of her own: a Roman soldier named Algon transformed into a chemical warrior two millennia previously.

Believing herself reunited with her lost love, Jezeba finally launches her long-delayed attack on the outside world with disastrous, tragic consequences…

The strangely appetising series came to a shuddering and unsatisfactory halt with the next issue as the superhero bubble burst and costumed comic characters suffered their second recession in fifteen years. Metamorpho was one of the first casualties, cancelled just as (or perhaps because) the series was emerging from its quirky comedic shell with the March-April 1968 issue.

Illustrated by Jack Sparling, ‘Last Mile for an Element Man!’ sees Mason tried and executed for the murder of Wally Bannister, resurrected by Urania Blackwell and set on the trail of true killer Algon. Along the way, Mason and Element Girl uncover a vast, incredible conspiracy and rededicate themselves to defending humanity at all costs.

The tale ends on a never-resolved cliffhanger: when Metamorpho was revived a few years later no mention was ever made of these last game-changing issues…

The elemental entertainment doesn’t end here though as this tome somewhat expiates the frustrating denouement with three terrific team-up tales beginning with The Brave and the Bold #66 (June/July 1966) and ‘Wreck the Renegade Robots’ where a mad scientist usurps control of the Metal Men just as their creator Will Magnus is preoccupied turning Metamorpho back into an ordinary mortal…

Two issues later (B& B #68 October/November 1966) the still Chemically Active Crime-buster battles Bat-Baddies Penguin, Joker and Riddler as well as a fearsomely mutated Caped Crusader in the thoroughly bizarre ‘Alias the Bat-Hulk!’ – both tales coming courtesy of Haney, Mike Sekowsky & Mike Esposito.

Sekowsky also drew the last story in this volume. Justice League of America #42 (February 1966) sees the hero joyfully join the World’s Greatest Superheroes to defeat a cosmic menace deemed The Unimaginable. The grateful champions instantly offer him membership but are astounded when – and why – ‘Metamorpho Says… No!’: a classic adventure written by Gardner Fox and inked by Bernard Sachs.

The wonderment finally concludes with a sterling pin-up of the Element Man and his core cast by Fradon & Paris.

Individually enticing, always exciting but oddly frustrating in total, this book will delight readers who aren’t too wedded to cloying continuity but simply seek a few moments of casual, fantastic escapism.
© 1965-1967, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

StormWatch volume One


By Warren Ellis, Tom Raney & Randy Elliott, with Michael Ryan, Jim Lee & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3420-1 (HC)                    978-1-4012-3421-8 (TPB)

StormWatch evolved out of the creative revolution which saw big name creators abandon the major “work-for-hire” publishers and set up their own companies and titles – with all the benefits and drawbacks that entailed.

As with most of those glossy, formulaic, style-over-content, almost actionably derivative titles the series started with a certain verve and flair but soon bogged down for a lack of ideas and outside help was called in to save the sinking ships.

Dedicated Iconoclast Warren Ellis took over the cumbersome series with issue #37 and immediately began brutalizing the title into something not only worth reading but within an unfeasibly brief time produced a dark, edgy and genuinely thought-provoking examination of heroism, free will, the use and abuse of power and ultimate personal responsibility. Making the book uniquely his, StormWatch became unmissable reading as the series slowly evolved itself out of existence, to be reborn as the eye-popping, mind-boggling anti-hero phenomenon The Authority.

And now of course, the entire rebellious pack have been subsumed by the big corporate colossi they were reacting against. Some things never change…

StormWatch was a vast United Nations-sponsored Special Crisis Intervention unit tasked with managing superhuman menaces with national or international ramifications and global threats, operating under the oversight of a UN committee. They were housed in “Skywatch”: a futuristic space station in geosynchronous orbit above the planet and could only act upon specific request of a member nation.

The multinational taskforce comprised surveillance and intelligence specialists, technical support units, historians and researchers, detention technicians, combat analysts, divisions of uniquely trained troops, a squadron of state-of-the-art out-atmosphere fighter planes all supporting a band of deputised superheroes for front-line situations beyond the scope of mere mortals.

The whole affair was controlled by incorruptible overseer Henry Bendix“The Weatherman”.

Referencing a host of fantasy classics ranging from T.HU.N.D.E.R. Agents and Justice League of America to Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet and even Star Trek: The Next Generation, this initial archival collection (available in hardback, softcover and digital editions) collects issues #37-47 of the comicbook series and describes how the aftermath of a team-member dying forces Bendix to re-evaluate his mission: seeking more effective ways to police the growing paranormal population and the national governments apparently determined to exterminate or exploit them…

The restructuring begins in ‘New World Order’ (by Ellis, Tom Raney & Randy Elliott) as, following the funeral of the fallen comrade, Bendix fires a large number of the superhuman contingent and recruits a trio of new “posthuman” heroes: electric warrior Jenny Sparks, extra-terrestrially augmented detective Jack Hawksmoor and psycho-killer Rose Tattoo.

Weatherman’s own chain-of-command has altered too: his new superiors in the UN Special Security Council are all anonymous now and, with the world in constant peril, they have given Bendix carte blanche. He will succeed or fail all on his own…

The super-agents are further restructured: StormWatch Prime is the name of the regular, public-facing metahuman team, whilst Black is the code for a new covert insertion unit.

StormWatch Red comprises the most powerful and deadly agents: they will handle “deterrent display and retaliation” – preventing crises by scaring the bejeezus out of potential hostiles…

Meanwhile in Germany, as all the admin gets signed off, a madman has unleashed a weaponized superhuman maniac to spreading death, destruction and disease. Whilst new Prime Unit deals with it Bendix shows the monster’s creator just how far he is prepared to go to preserve order on the planet below…

‘Reprisal’ is a murder investigation. No sooner has one of the redundant ex-StormWatch operatives arrived home than he is assassinated and Jack Hawksmoor, Irish ex-cop Hellstrike and pyrokine Fahrenheit’s subsequent investigation reveals the kill was officially instigated by a friendly government and StormWatch member-state…

Hawksmoor, Jenny Sparks and aerial avenger Swift are dispatched to an ordinary American town with a big secret in ‘Black’ as Amnesty International reports reveal that some US police forces are engaging in systematic human rights abuse.

In Lincoln City they’re also building their own metahuman soldiers and testing them on ethnic minorities…

‘Mutagen’ sees the Prime team in action in Britain after terrorists release an airborne pathogen to waft its monstrous way across the Home Counties, turning humans into ghastly freaks for whom death is a quick and welcome mercy.

As Skywatch’s Hammerstrike Squadron performs a sterilising bombing run over outraged Albion, StormWatch Red arrives in the villains’ homeland to teach them the error of their ways…

In this continuum most superhumans are the result of exposure to a comet which narrowly missed the Earth, irradiating a significant proportion of humanity with power-potential. These “Seedlings’” abilities usually lie dormant until an event triggers them.

StormWatch believed they had a monopoly on posthumans who could trigger others in the form of special agent Christine Trelane, but when she investigates a new potential meta, she discovers proof of another ‘Activator’ (illustrated by Michael Ryan & Elliott).

Coming closer to solving a long-running mystery regarding where the American Government is getting its new human weapons, Trelane first has to deal with the worst kind of seedling… a bad one…

Raney returns and the Ellis Experiment continues with spectacular action set-piece ‘Kodǒ’ from #42. Japan shudders and reels under telekinetic assault courtesy of cruelly conjoined artificial mutants bred by a backward-looking doomsday-cult messiah. The Prime team is dispatched to save lives and hunt down the instigators in a good old-fashioned, get-the-bad-guys romp which gives the team’s multi-faceted Japanese hero Fuji a chance to shine…

By this time the comics world was paying close attention as “just another high-priced team-book” became an edgy, unmissable treatise on practical heroism and the uses and abuses of power.

Making the title unquestionably his plaything, Ellis slowly evolved StormWatch out of existence, to be reborn as the no-rules-unbroken landmark The Authority. The transition hit high gear with the following tales: short, hard looks at individual cast members

The incisive explorations begin with ‘Jack Hawksmoor’: a human subjected to decades of surgical manipulation by aliens to become the avatar of cities. Drawn to the scene of a serial killer’s grotesque excesses, Jack uncovers a festering government cover-up which reaches deep into the soul of American idolatry: implicating one the culture’s most revered idols and threatening to rip the country apart if exposed.

Nevertheless, the apparently untouchable murderer will never cease his slaughter-campaign unless someone stops him…

‘Jenny Sparks’ follows the cynical Englishwoman whose electrical powers were an expression of her metaphysical status as incarnate “Spirit of the Twentieth Century”: proffering a captivating pastiche of fantasy through the last hundred years as the jaded hero recounts her life story (see also Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority).

This dazzling series of pastiches references Siegel & Shuster, Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, Kirby, Crumb and the horrors of Thatcherite Britain in a gripping tale of betrayal…

Terse thriller ‘Battalion’ then sees StormWatch’s normally non-operational, behind-the-scenes trainer fall into a supremacist terror-plot whilst on leave in Alabama. To survive, he’s forced to call on skills and abilities he never thought he’d need again…

‘Rose Tattoo’ was a mute and mysterious sexy super psycho-killer recruited by Bendix as a walking ultimate sanction. When her super-powered team-mates go on a hilarious alcoholic bonding exercise, she finally shows her true nature in a tale which foreshadows an upcoming crisis for the entire team… and planet.

Following Raney & Elliot’s sterling run Jim Lee & Richard Bennett illustrate the concluding ‘Assembly’ as Bendix sends his core team into the very pits of Hell in a bombastic action-packed shocker that acts as a “jumping-on point” for new readers and a reminder of what StormWatch is and does… preparatory to Ellis kicking the props out from under the readership in the next volume…

Also on show are a concluding gallery of covers and variants by Raney & Elliott, Gil Kane & Tom Palmer and Mark Erwin.

Artfully blending the comfortably traditional with the radically daring, these transitional tales offered a new view of the Fights ‘n’ Tights scene that tantalised jaded readers and led the way to the groundbreaking phenomenon of the Authority, Planetary and later iconoclastic advances.

Raney & Elliott’s art is competent and mercifully underplayed – a real treat considering some of the excessive visual flourishes of the Image Era – but the real focus of attention is always the brusque “sod you” True Brit writing which trashes all the treasured ideoliths of superhero comics to such devastating effect.

This is superb action-based comics drama: cynical, darkly satirical, anarchic, alternately rip-roaringly funny and chilling in its examination of Real Politik but never forgetting that deep down we all really want to see the baddies get a good solid smack in the mouth…

These now relatively vintage tales celebrate the best of what has gone before whilst kicking in the doors to a bleaker more compelling tomorrow.
© 1996, 1997 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: The Silver Age Volume One


By Bob Haney, Bruno Premiani, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Bill Molno & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7508-2

The concept of kid hero teams was not a new one when the 1960s Batman TV show finally prompted DC to trust their big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own regular comic in a fab, hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as they were to stamping out insidious evil.

The biggest difference between wartime groups such as The Young Allies, Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos or 1950s holdovers like The Little Wise Guys or Boys Ranch and the creation of the Teen Titans was quite simply the burgeoning phenomena of “The Teenager” as a discrete social and commercial force. These were kids who could – and should – be allowed to do things themselves without constant adult help or supervision.

This quirkily eclectic trade paperback and eBook compilation re-presents the landmark try-out appearances from The Brave and the Bold #54 and 60 and Showcase #59 – collectively debuting in 1964 and1965 – as well as the first eleven issues of Teen Titans solo title, spanning January/February 1966 to September/October 1967.

As early as the June-July 1964 issue of The Brave and the Bold (#54), DC’s Powers-That-Be tested the waters in a gripping tale by writer Bob Haney superbly illustrated by unsung genius Bruno Premiani.

The Thousand-and-One Dooms of Mr. Twister’ united Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin the Boy Wonder in dire and desperate battle against a modern wizard-cum-Pied Piper who tried to abduct all the teen-agers of scenic Hatton Corners. The young heroes accidentally meet in the town by chance after students invite them to mediate in a long-running dispute with the town adults…

This element of a teen “court of appeal” was the motivating principle in many of the group’s cases. One year later the team reformed for a second adventure (B&B #60, by the same creative team) and introduced two new elements.

‘The Astounding Separated Man’ features more misunderstood kids (weren’t we all?); this time in the coastal hamlet of Midville and threatened by an outlandish monster whose giant body parts can detach and move independently. Wonder Girl was added to the roster (not actually a sidekick, or even a person at that juncture, but rather an incarnation of Wonder Woman as a child – a fact the writer and editor of the series seemed blissfully unaware of) but most importantly they kids finally had a team name: ‘Teen Titans’.

Their final try-out appearance was in Showcase (#59, November-December 1965); birthplace of so many hit comic concepts. It was also the first to be drawn by the brilliant Nick Cardy (who became synonymous with the 1960s series).

‘The Return of the Teen Titans’ pits the neophyte team against teen pop trio ‘The Flips’ who are apparently also a gang of super-crooks. As was so often the case, the grown-ups had got it all wrong again…

The next month Teen Titans #1 debuted (cover-dated January/February 1966 and released mere weeks before the Batman TV show aired on January 12th) with Robin very much the point of focus on the cover and most succeeding ones.

Haney & Cardy crafted an exotic thriller entitled ‘The Beast-God of Xochatan!’ which sees the team act as Peace Corps representatives in a South American drama of sabotage, giant robots and magical monsters. The next issue held a fantastic mystery of revenge and young love involving ‘The Million-Year-Old Teen-Ager’ who was entombed and revived in the 20th century. He might have survived modern intolerance, bullying and culture shock on his own but when his ancient blood enemy turned up the Titans were ready to lend a hand…

‘The Revolt at Harrison High’ in #3 cashed in on the contemporary craze for drag-racing in a tale of bizarre criminality. Produced during a historically iconic era, many readers now can’t help but cringe when reminded of such daft foes as Ding-Dong Daddy and his evil biker gang, and of course the hip, trendy dialogue (it wasn’t that accurate then, let alone now) is pitifully dated, but the plot is strong and the art magnificent.

‘The Secret Olympic Heroes’ guest-starred Green Arrow’s teen partner Speedy in a very human tale of parental pressure at the Olympics, although there’s also skulduggery aplenty from a terrorist organisation intent on disrupting the games.

TT #5’s ‘The Perilous Capers of the Terrible Teen’ finds Titans facing the dual task of aiding a troubled young man and capturing an elusive super-villain dubbed the Ant, despite all evidence indicating that they’re the same person, after which another DC sidekick made his Titans debut.

Illustrated by Bill Molno & Sal Trapani ‘The Fifth Titan’ then introduces Beast Boy (the obnoxious juvenile know-it-all from the iconic Doom Patrol). Feeling unappreciated by his adult mentors, the young hero wrongly assumes he’ll be welcomed by his peers. Rejected again he then falls under the spell of an unscrupulous circus owner and the kids need to set things right.

Slow and overly convoluted, it’s possibly the low-point of a stylish run, but many fans disagree, citing #7’s ‘The Mad Mod, Merchant of Menace’ as the biggest stinker. However, beneath the painfully dated dialogue there’s a witty, tongue-in-cheek tale of swinging London, cool capers and novel criminality, plus the return of the magnificent Nick Cardy to the art chores.

It was back to America for ‘A Killer called Honey Bun’ (illustrated by Irv Novick & Jack Abel): another tale of intolerance and misunderstood kids, played against a backdrop of espionage in Middle America, and featuring a deadly prototype robotic super-weapon in the menacing title role…

Teen Titans #9’s ‘Big Beach Rumble’ finds the Titans refereeing a swiftly-escalating vendetta between rival colleges on holiday when modern day pirates led by the barbarous Captain Tiger crash the scene. Novick pencilled it and Cardy’s inking made it all very palatable in a light and uncomplicated way

The editor obviously agreed as the art teem continued for the next few issues, beginning with ‘Scramble at Wildcat’: a rowdy crime caper featuring dirt-bikes and desert ghost-towns, with skeevy biker The Scorcher profiting from a pernicious robbery spree…

Wrapping up this initial outing, Speedy returned in #11’s spy-thriller ‘Monster Bait’, with the young heroes going undercover to save a boy being blackmailed into betraying his father and his country…

Although perhaps dated in delivery now, these tales were an incomprehensibly liberating experience for kids when first released. They truly betokened a new empathy with increasingly independent youth and sought to address problems that were more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are so captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful and you absolutely should get this book
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Action Heroes Archive Vol 1: Captain Atom & Vol. 2 Captain Atom, Blue Beetle & The Question


By Steve Ditko and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0302-3  ISBN: 978-1-4012-1346-6 (vol 2)

It’s been a grim few weeks for lovers of the graphic arts. Peter Firmin passed away at the beginning of the month, and I’ve just heard that Steve Ditko has been found dead in his apartment. Both these men shaped my life and so many millions of others, especially the solitary work-obsessed genius who gave us Spider-Man, The Creeper, Mr. A and so many more. A more considered response and review will come in the weeks to come, but for now let’s consider these books: classic outsider wonderment from a creator who reshaped every aspect of comics by sniping from the edge and never once buying into the hype…

Steve Ditko is possibly comics’ most unique stylist. Love him or hate him, you can’t mistake his work for anyone else’s. His career began in the early 1950’s and, depending on whether you’re a superhero fan or prefer the deeper and more visually free and experimental work, peaked in either the mid-1960’s or 1970’s.

Leaving the Avenging World, Mr. A and his other philosophically derived creations for another time, the super-hero crowd should heartily celebrate this deluxe collection of the first costumed do-gooder that Ditko worked on. Although I’m a huge fan of his linework – which is best served by black and white printing – the crisp, sharp colour of this Archive edition is still much better than the appalling reproduction on bog-paper that first displayed Charlton Comics’ Atomic Ace to the kids of Commie-obsessed America, circa 1960.

Captain Adam is an astronaut accidentally atomised in a rocketry accident. Eerily – and the way it’s drawn spooked the short pants off me when I first read it more than fifty years ago – he reassembles himself on the launch pad, gifted with astounding powers. Reporting to the President, he swiftly becomes the USA’s secret weapon.

In those simpler times the short, terse adventures of Captain Atom seemed somehow more telling than the anodyne DC fare, and Marvel was still pushing monsters in underpants; their particular heroic revolution was still months away. Ditko’s hero was different and we few who read him all knew it.

Mostly written or co-written with Joe Gill, the first wonderful, addictive run of 18 stories from Space Adventures #33-42 (and three of those were drawn by the uninspired and out-of-his-depth Rocke Mastroserio) are a magnificent example of Ditko’s emerging mastery of mood, pacing, atmosphere and human dynamics.

In 1961, as Ditko did more and more work for the blossoming – and better paying – Marvel, Charlton killed the series. But when Dick Giordano created a superhero line for Charlton in late 1965, Captain Atom was revived. Space Adventures was retitled, and the Captain’s first full length issue was numbered #78.

As he was still drawing Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Ditko could only manage pencils for the Captain and Mastroserio was recruited to ink the series, resulting in an oddly jarring finish. With #79 Ditko became lead writer too, and the stories took on an eccentric, compelling edge and tone that lifted them above much of the competition’s fare. Eventually the inker adapted to Ditko’s style and much of the ungainliness had disappeared from the figurework, although so had the fine detail that had elevated the early art.

This volume ends with issue #82, leaving six more published issues and a complete unpublished seventh for another time…

This second volume completes Ditko’s costumed hero contributions with the remainder of the Captain Atom tales, and the introduction of a new Blue Beetle and the uniquely iconic Question.

Captain Atom #83 (November 1966) starts the ball rolling here with a huge blast of reconstructive character surgery. Although ‘Finally Falls the Mighty!’ was inked by Rocke Mastroserio and scripted by David Kaler, thematically it’s pure Ditko. Plotted and drawn by him, it sees an ungrateful public turn on the Atomic Ace, due to the manipulations of a cunning criminal.

Intended to remove some of the omnipotence from the character, the added humanity of malfunctioning powers made his struggles against treacherous Professor Koste all the more poignant, and the sheer visual spectacle of his battle against a runaway reactor is some of Ditko’s most imaginative design and layout work. The tale ends on a cliffhanger – a real big deal when the comic only came out every two months – and the last seven pages featured the debut of a new superhero with one of the oldest names in the business.

The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1, released by Fox Comics and dated August 1939. Created by Charles Nicholas (née Wojtkowski) the character was inexplicably popular and survived the death of a number of publishers to end up as a Charlton property in the mid 1950s. After releasing a few issues sporadically the character disappeared until the superhero revival of the early 1960s when young Roy Thomas revised and revived the character for a ten issue run (June 1964 – February 1966).

Here Ditko completely recreated the character. Ted Kord was an earnest young scientist with a secret tragedy in his past but Ditko and scripter Gary Friedrich wisely eschewed origin for action in a taut and captivating crime-thriller where the new hero displayed his modus operandi by stopping a vicious crime-spree by the Killer Koke Gang.

This untitled short has all the classic elements of a Ditko masterpiece: outlandish fight scenes, compact, claustrophobic yet dynamic layouts, innovative gimmickry and a clear-cut battle between Right and Wrong. It’s one of the very best introductory stories of a new hero anywhere in comics – and it’s seven pages long.

The remodeling of the Atomic Ace concluded in the next issue with ‘After the Fall a New Beginning.’ Once again Ditko rattled his authorial sabre about the fickleness of the public as the villainous Koste exposed the hero’s face on live TV. Escaping, Atom got a new costume with his curtailed powers and consequently a lot more drama entered the series.

Now there was a definite feeling of no safety or status quo. The untitled Beetle back-up (scripted by Gary Friedrich with pencils and inks by Ditko) pitted the hero against the masked Marauder but the real kicker was the bombshell that Homicide detective Fisher, investigating the disappearance of Dan Garrett, suspected a possible connection to scientist Ted Kord…

‘Strings of Punch and Jewelee’ introduced a couple of shady carnival hucksters who found a chest of esoteric alien weapons and used them for robbery whilst extending a running plot-line about the mysterious Ghost and his connection to a lost civilization of warrior women. Although Cap and partner Nightshade are somewhat outclassed here, the vigour and vitality of the Blue Beetle was undeniable when a mid-air hijack is foiled and a spy sub and giant killer octopus are given short thrift by the indomitable rookie crusader.

Captain Atom #86 finally brought the long-simmering plot-thread of tech thief The Ghost to a boil as the malevolent science-wizard went on a rampage, utterly trouncing Nightshade and our hero before being kidnapped by the aforementioned Warrior girls. ‘The Fury of the Faceless Foe!’ is by Ditko, Kaler & Mastroserio whilst in the (still) untitled Blue Beetle strip by Friedrich and Ditko the azure avenger battled a ruthless scientist and industrial spy.

This led directly into the first issue of his own comic-book. Blue Beetle #1 (June 1967) is an all-Ditko masterpiece (he even scripted it under the pen-name D.C. Glanzman) and saw the hero in all-out action against a deadly gang of bandits. ‘Blue Beetle… Bugs the Squids’ is crammed with the eccentric vitality that made the Amazing Spider-Man such a monster hit, and the crime-busting joie de vivre is balanced by the moody, claustrophobic introduction of Steve Ditko’s most challenging superhero creation.

‘The Question’ is Vic Sage, a TV journalist with an uncompromising attitude to crime and corruption and an alter-ego of faceless, relentless retribution. In his premiere outing he exposes the link between his own employers’ self-righteous sponsors and gambling racketeer Lou Dicer. This theme of unflinching virtue in the teeth of both violent crime and pernicious social and peer pressure marked Ditko’s departure from straight entertainment towards philosophical – some would say polemical – examination of greater societal issues and the true nature of both Good and Evil that would culminate in his controversial Mr. A, Avenging World and other independent ventures.

Captain Atom #87, ‘The Menace of the Fiery-Icer’ (August 1967) presaged the beginning of the end for the Atomic Ace as Kaler, Ditko & Mastroserio dialed back on the plot threads to deliver a visually excellent but run-of-the-mill yarn about a spy ring with a hot line in cold-blooded leaders.

Blue Beetle #2 however, an all-Ditko affair from the same month, showed the master at his heroic peak, both in the lead story ‘The End is a Beginning!’ which finally revealed the origin of the character as well as the fate of Dan Garrett, (the original Beetle) and even advanced his relationship with his girl Friday Tracey. The enigmatic Question, meanwhile, tackled the flying burglar known as the Banshee in a vertiginous, moody thriller reminiscent of early Doctor Strange strips.

Frank McLaughlin took over the inking for ‘Ravage of Ronthor’ in Captain Atom #88 (October 1967) as the hero answered a distress call from outer space to preserve a paradise planet from marauding giant bugs, in a satisfying no-nonsense escapist romp. Blue Beetle #3 was another superbly satisfying read as the eponymous hero routed the malevolent, picturesque thugs ‘The Madmen’ in a sharp parable about paranoia and misperception. Equally captivating was the intense and bizarre Question vignette as a murderous ghostly deep-sea diver stalks some shady captains of industry.

Issue #89 was the last Captain Atom published by Charlton (December 1967): an early casualty of the burn-out afflicting the superhero genre that led to a resurrected horror/mystery craze. This genre would then form a new backbone for the company’s 1970’s output; one where Ditko would shine again in his role as master of short story horror.

Scripter Dave Kaler managed to satisfactorily tie up most of the hanging plot threads with the warrior women of Sunuria in the sci-fi-meets-witchcraft thriller ‘Thirteen’ although the Ditko/McLaughlin art team was nowhere near their best form.

The next episode promised a final ‘Showdown in Sunuria’, but this never materialized.

Blue Beetle #4 (released the same month) is visually the best of the bunch as Ted Kord followed a somehow returned Dan Garrett to an Asian backwater in pursuit of lost treasure and a death cult. ‘The Men of the Mask’ is pure strip poetry and bombastic action, perfectly counterbalanced by a seedy underworld thriller as the Question sought to discover who gave the order to ‘Kill Vic Sage!’ This was scripted by Steve Skeates (as Warren Savin) and was the last action any Charlton hero saw for the better part of a year.

Cover-dated October 1968, The Question returned as the star of Mysterious Suspense #1. Ditko produced a captivating cover and a three-chapter thriller (whilst Rocke Mastroserio provided a rather jarring full-page frontispiece).

‘What Makes a Hero?’ (probably rescued from partially completed inventory material) saw crusading Vic Sage pilloried by the public, abandoned by friends and employers yet resolutely sticking to his higher principles in pursuit of hypocritical villains masquerading as pillars of the community. Ditko’s interest in Ayn Rand’s philosophical Objectivism had become increasingly important to him and this story is probably the dividing line between his “old” and “new” work. It’s also the most powerful and compelling piece in the entire book.

A month later one final issue of Blue Beetle (#5) was published. ‘The Destroyer of Heroes’ is a decidedly quirky tale that features a nominal team-up of the azure avenger and the Question as a frustrated artist defaced heroic and uplifting paintings and statues. Ditko’s committed if reactionary views of youth culture, which so worried Stan Lee, are fully on view in this controversial, absorbing work.

Other material had been created and languished incomplete in editorial limbo. In the early 1970s a burgeoning and committed fan-base created a fanzine called Charlton Portfolio. With the willing assistance of the company, a host of kids who would soon become household names in their own right found a way to bring the lost work to the public gaze.

Their efforts are also included here, in black and white as they originally appeared. For Charlton Portfolio #9 and 10 (1974), Blue Beetle #6 was serialized. ‘A Specter is Haunting Hub City!’ is another all-Ditko extravaganza, pitting the hero against an (almost) invisible thief whilst the follow-up magazine Charlton Bullseye (1975) finally published ‘Showdown in Sunuria’ in its first two issues.

Behind an Al Milgrom Captain Atom cover, Kaler’s plot was scripted by Roger Stern (working as Jon G. Michels) and Ditko’s pencils were inked by rising star John Byrne – a cataclysmic climax almost worth the eight year wait. But even there the magic doesn’t end in this magnificent Archive volume.

From Charlton Bullseye #5 (1975) comes one final pre-DC tale of The Question: eight, gripping, intense, beautiful pages plotted by Stern, scripted by Michael Uslan and illustrated by the legendary Alex Toth, This alone is well worth the rather high price of admission.

These weighty snapshots of another era are packed with classic material by brilliant craftsmen. They are books no Ditko addict, serious fan of the genre or lover of graphic adventure can afford to be without. It’s impossible to describe the grace, finesse, and unique eclectic shape of Steve Ditko’s art. It should be experienced. And this is as good a place to start as any, and probably a lot easier to obtain than much of this lost genius’ back catalogue.

© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Black Lightning volume two


By Dennis O’Neil, Gerry Conway, J.M. DeMatteis, Martin Pasko, Paul Kupperberg, Dick Dillin, George Tuska, Rick Buckler, Marshall Rogers, Mike Netzer/Nasser, Romeo Tanghal, Joe Staton, Pat Broderick, Dick Giordano, Gerald Forton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7546-4

Black Lightning was DC’s first African American superhero to star in his own solo title, which launched in 1977…

When former Olympic decathlete Jefferson Pierce returned to the streets of Suicide Slum, Metropolis to teach at inner city Garfield High School, he was determined to make a real difference to the disadvantaged and often troubled kids he used to be numbered amongst. However, when he interrupted a drug buy on school grounds and sent the dealer packing, he opened everyone around him to mob vengeance and personal tragedy…

When the ruling racketeers – an organised syndicate dubbed The 100 – came seeking retaliation, one of Pierce’s students paid the ultimate price. The traumatised teacher realised he needed the shield of anonymity if he was to win justice and safety for his beleaguered home and charges…

Happily, tailor Peter Gambi – who had raised Jefferson and taken care of his mother after the elder Pierce was murdered – had a few useful ideas and inexplicable access to some pretty far-out technology…

Soon, equipped with a strength-&-speed-enhancing forcefield belt and costume, plus a mask and wig that completely changed his appearance, a fierce new vigilante stalked the streets of Metropolis…

Now with the urban avenger the star of his own television series, those early groundbreaking adventures have been gathered into a series of astoundingly accessible, no-nonsense trade paperback and eBook collections.

This second outing gathers a flurry of back-up and guest appearances from May 1979 to October 1980, gathered from various titles where the urban avenger prowled after his solo title folded. They cumulatively comprise World’s Finest Comics #256-259 and #261, DC Comics Presents #16, Justice League of America #173-174, Detective Comics #490-491 and #495-495 and The Brave and the Bold #163 plus pertinent material from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #3 (1985) and Who’s Who in the DC Universe #16 (1992).

Following an informative Introduction by character originator Tony Isabella reprising Black Lightning: The In-Between Years, the (relatively) down-to-earth superhero antics commence with ‘Encounter with a Dark Avenger!’ (by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin & Frank Chiaramonte, taken from World’s Finest Comics #256).

Here the electric warrior is manipulated into a potentially fatal confrontation with equally fervent urban vigilante Green Arrow. As the heroes clash neither is aware that the 100’s ousted boss Tobias Whale is behind their mutual woes…

That short yarn saw Black Lightning as GA’s guest star and served as a prelude to ‘Death Ransom!’ in WF #257, the beginning of Pierce’s second (strictly backup) series. Crafted by O’Neil, George Tuska & Bob Smith, it sees a fateful, brutal clash with The Whale and results in a wary ceasefire for the archenemies as they unite to destroy the swiftly rebuilding 100 cartel…

Of course, a scorpion’s gotta sting and the alliance only lasts one issue before Whale betrays Lightning’s trust and another innocent dies in ‘The Blood of the Lamb!’ (O’Neil, Rich Buckler & Romeo Tanghal, World’s Finest #258)…

World’s Finest #259 provides a labyrinthine conundrum as the hero and a horde of gunman act on a deathbed tip-off and converge on a seedy welfare hotel that might be ‘The Last Hideout’ (O’Neil, Marshall Rogers, Michael Nasser/Netzer & Vince Colletta) of a legendary criminal and his ill-gotten gains. Sadly, only the masked hero cared about collateral casualties…

‘Return of the River Rat!’ (O’Neil, Tanghal & Colletta, World’s Finest #261) ended this back-up run on a mediocre note as school chaperone Jefferson Pierce is fortuitously on hand during a river cruise party just when an exiled mobster tries to sneak back into the USA by submarine…

A co-starring role in DC Comics Presents #16 (December 1979) then finds the street-smart urban avenger and Superman confronting a heartsick and violently despondent alien trapped on Earth for millennia in ‘The De-volver!’ (courtesy of O’Neil, Joe Staton & Frank Chiaramonte) after which the lone avenger gets a nod of approval from the Big Guns of Superheroing…

Justice League of America #173-174 (December 1979 and January 1980) offered a smart two-parter with a twist ending as the League try to induct the mysterious, unvetted vigilante.

After much fervent debate, they decide to set their still-unsuspecting candidate a little problem to prove his worth.

However, as a vermin-controlling maniac unleashes terror upon Metropolis, the ‘Testing of a Hero’ and ‘A Plague of Monsters’ (Gerry Conway, Dillin & Frank McLaughlin) takes the old recruitment drive into a very fresh direction and leads to disappointment all around…

Still Not Quite Popular Enough, the hero was found tenure in the more moody and grounded Detective Comics beginning with #490 (May 1980). Here Martin Pasko, Pat Broderick & McLaughlin reveal how ‘Lightning Strikes Twice Out!’ as a protracted clash with a ruthless Haitian gang led by Mama Mambu leads to his kidnap and the loss of his powers and gimmicks in concluding chapter ‘Short-Circuit’ (Detective #491).

A corrupt Senator stealing oil shipments to finance a private army and attempted takeover of America is brought down by separate-but-convergent investigations conducted by Black Lightning and Batman in ‘Oil, Oil… Nowhere’ (Paul Kupperberg & Dick Giordano; The Brave and The Bold #163, June 1980) after which J.M. DeMatteis & Gerald Forton assume creative control of the Lightning’s path in Detective Comics #494 Detective Comics #494.

‘Explosion of the Soul’ (September 1980) sees the streets haunted by a murderous junkie-killing vigilante, and all Pierce’s investigations seem to lead inexorably back to one of his students…

Ending on a dark note of tragedy, ‘Animals’ (DeMatteis & Forton, Detective #494) then sees the Suicide Slum School Olympics turned into a charnel house when a juvenile street gang seizes the girls’ hockey team and demands safe passage and new lives in Switzerland. When Black Lightning intercedes, not everybody gets out alive…

Supplemented with a cover gallery by Ross Andru, Giordano, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams & Dillin, and including fact-packed background and data pages about ‘Black Lightning’ from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #3 (1985) and an updated entry from Who’s Who in the DC Universe #16 (1992) this potent package of fast-paced Fights ‘n’ Tights thrillers are so skilfully constructed that even the freshest neophyte will be able to settle in for the ride without any confusion and enjoy a self-contained rollicking rollercoaster of terrifically traditional superhero shenanigans.

So, what are you waiting for?
© 1979, 1980, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman in The Brave and the Bold: The Bronze Age volume one


By Bob Haney, Mike Sekowsky, Marv Wolfman, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7517-4 (TPB)

The Brave and the Bold began in 1955 as an anthology adventure comic featuring short complete tales about a variety of period heroes: a format that mirrored the contemporary movie fascination with historical dramas.

Written by Bob Kanigher, issue #1 led with Golden Gladiator, the Silent Knight and Joe Kubert’s now legendary Viking Prince. From #5 the Gladiator was increasingly alternated with Robin Hood, but such manly, mainly mainstream romps carried the title until the end of the decade when the burgeoning costumed character revival saw B&B transform into a try-out vehicle like sister publication Showcase.

Issue #25 (August-September 1959) featured the debut of Task Force X: Suicide Squad, followed by Justice League of America (#28), Cave Carson (#31) and Hawkman (#34). Since only the JLA hit the first time out, there were return engagements for the Squad, Carson and Hawkman. Something truly different appeared in #45-49 with the science fictional Strange Sports Stories before Brave and the Bold #50 provided a new concept that once again truly caught the reader’s imagination.

That issue paired two superheroes – Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter – in a one-off team-up, as did succeeding issues: Aquaman and Hawkman in #51, WWII combatants Sgt Rock, Captain Cloud, Mme. Marie and the Haunted Tank in #52 and Atom and Flash in #53. The next team-up – Robin, Aqualad and Kid Flash – evolved rapidly into the Teen Titans. After Metal Men/the Atom and Flash/Martian Manhunter new hero Metamorpho, the Element Man debuted in #57-58.

Then it was back to superhero pairings with #59, and although no one realised it at the time this particular conjunction (Batman with Green Lantern) would be particularly significant.

After a return engagement for the Teen Titans in #60, the next two issues highlighted Earth-2 champions Starman and Black Canary, whilst Wonder Woman met Supergirl in #63.

Then, in an indication of things to come, and in anticipation of the TV-induced mania mere months away, Batman duelled hero/villain Eclipso in #64. Within two issues, following Flash/Doom Patrol (#65) and Metamorpho/Metal Men (#66), Brave and the Bold #67 saw the Caped Crusader take de facto control of the title and the lion’s share of the team-ups. With the exception of #72-73 (Spectre/Flash and Aquaman/Atom) the comic was henceforth to be a place where Batman invited the rest of company’s heroic pantheon to come and play…

For the sake of brevity and clarity and according to the wise ones who dictate such arbitrary demarcations, it’s also the point at which Comics’ Silver Age transitioned into the Bronze Age…

This first collection of unalloyed Batman pairings with other luminaries of the DC universe reprints B&B #74-91 (spanning October/November 1967 to August/September 1970) featuring the last vestiges of a continuity-reduced DC where individual story needs were seldom submerged into a cohesive overarching scenario, and where lead writer Bob Haney crafted stories that were meant to be read in isolation, drawn by a profusion of artists with only one goal: entertainment.

The Caped Crime-crusher took full possession of Brave and the Bold with #74’s fast-paced and dryly funny ‘Rampant Run the Robots’ as the Metal Men confront human prejudice and perfidious inventors whilst in #75 The Spectre joins the Dark Knight to free Gotham City’s Chinatown from an ancient wizard and ‘The Grasp of Shahn-Zi!’; both tales drawn by the new semi-regular art team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

Illustrated by Mike Sekowsky & Jack Abel, Plastic Man helped solve the mystery of plastic-obsessed maniac The Molder in #76’s ‘Doom, What Is Thy Shape?’ after which Andru & Esposito return to limn the Atom’s participation in foiling a criminal circus performer in ‘So Thunders the Cannoneer!’

The vastly underrated Bob Brown stepped in to draw ‘In the Coils of the Copperhead’ wherein Wonder Woman found herself vying with the newly-minted Batgirl for Batman’s affections. Of course, it was all a cunning plan… or was it?

Neal Adams was a young illustrator who had worked in advertising and ghosted some newspaper strips whilst trying to break into comics. With #75 he had become a cover artist for B&B and with #79 (August-September 1968) he took over the interior art for a game-changing groundbreaking run that rewrote the rulebook for strip illustration.

‘The Track of the Hook’ paired the Dark Knight Detective with a justice-obsessed ghost. Deadman was murdered trapeze artist Boston Brand who perpetually hunted his own killer, and whose earthy, human tragedy elevated the series’ campy costumed theatrics into deeper, more mature realms of drama and action. The stories matured ten years overnight and instantly became every discerning fan’s favourite read.

‘And Hellgrammite is his Name’ then finds Batman and the Creeper defying a bug-themed super-hitman, and the Flash aids the Caped Crusader in defeating an unbeatable thug in ‘But Bork Can Hurt You!’ (both inked by Dick Giordano) before Aquaman becomes ‘The Sleepwalker from the Sea’ in an eerie tale of mind-control and sibling rivalry.

Issue # 83 took a radical turn as the Teen Titans try to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’ but the next team-up was one that got many fans in a real tizzy in 1969.

‘The Angel, the Rock and the Cowl’ recounted a World War II exploit where Batman and Sgt. Rock of Easy Company hunt Nazi gold and a war criminal together, only closing the case twenty-five years later. Ignoring the kvetching about relative ages and which Earth we’re on, which raised a storm in an eggcup back then, you should focus on the fact that this is a startlingly gripping tale of great intensity and beautifully realised: one which was criminally discounted for decades as “non-canonical”.

Brave and the Bold #85 is arguably the best of an incredible run. ‘The Senator’s Been Shot!’ reunited Batman and Green Arrow in a superb multi-layered thriller of politics, corruption and cast-iron integrity, wherein Bruce Wayne stands in for a law-maker and the Emerald Archer receives a radical make-over that turned him into the fiery liberal gadfly champion of the relevancy generation…

Boston Brand returned in #86, as Batman found ‘You Can’t Hide from a ‘Deadman!’: a captivating epic of death, redemption and resurrection that became a cornerstone of Bat-mythology forever after.

What follows is a decidedly different adventure written and drawn by Mike Sekowsky and starring the venerable comics icon he had made fresh and exciting all over again.

Inked by Giordano and entitled ‘The Widow-Maker’, it tells of the son of one of Batman’s old foes who attempts to add to his tally of motoring murders by luring the Caped Crusader into a rigged high-performance car race. That’s when recently de-powered Diana Prince, once and future Wonder Woman, steps in…

Following Adams’ iconoclastic and influential run was always going to be a tough act, but veteran Irv Novick – who would also unfairly tread in Adams’ mighty shadow on Batman for years to come – did sterling work here on a gritty tale of boxing and Cold War mind-games as the Caped Crusader meets golden age troubleshooter Wildcat in ‘Count Ten… and Die!’ (B&B #88, February-March 1970).

Esposito inked that tale before reuniting with long-time collaborator Ross Andru for a brief return engagement that began with a spooky suspense-thriller pitting Batman against the mystery sensation Phantom Stranger (and his rationalist rival Dr. Terry Thirteen) in #89’s ‘Arise Ye Ghosts of Gotham!’

The team then switch pace and genre for a time-bending science fiction thriller ‘You Only Die Twice!’ guest-starring interstellar champion Adam Strange and threatening to record the fall from grace and death of the Gotham Guardian.

The comics content concludes here with issue #91, as ‘A Cold Corpse for the Collector’ provides a true gem of love and death. Haney was always at his best with terse, human scale dramas, especially “straight” crime thrillers, and his pairing of the Batman with Black Canary (transplanted from Earth-2 to replace Wonder Woman in the Justice League) saw the recently-widowed heroine searching for the Earth-1 counterpart of her dead husband…

What she got was self-delusion, heartbreak and imminent death in a masterpiece of ironic melodrama. It also signalled the advent of the superb Nick Cardy as illustrator: a short run of beautifully drawn and boldly experimental assignments that are still startling to see nearly five decades later.

These are some of the best and most entertainingly varied yarns from a period of magnificent creativity in the American comics industry. Aimed at a general readership, gloriously free of heavy, cloying continuity baggage and brought to stirring, action-packed life by some of the greatest artists in the business, this is a Batman for all seasons and reasons with the added bonus of some of the most fabulous and engaging co-stars a fan could imagine. How could anybody resist? Seriously: can you…?
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Super Powers by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby with Joey Cavalieri, Paul Kupperberg, Adrian Gonzalez, Pablo Marcos, Alan Kupperberg, Greg Theakston & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7140-4

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Great Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He also always believed that sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books right beside mankind’s other literary art forms.

Looks like he was right, and – as usual – just ahead of the times, doesn’t it?

Thanks to his recent centenary there’s a magnificent abundance of Kirby commemorative collections around these days (though still not all of it, so I remain a partially disgruntled dedicated fan). This particular trade paperback and eBook compendium re-presents The King’s last complete conceptual outing for DC and one that has been neglected by fans for far too long.

During the 1980s costumed heroes stopped being an exclusively print cash cow as big toy companies licensed Fights ‘n’ Tights titans and reaped the benefits of ready-made comicbook spin-offs. DC’s most recognizable characters became a best-selling line of action figures and were inevitably hived off into a brisk and breezy, fight-frenzied miniseries.

Super Powers launched in July 1984 as a 5-issue miniseries with Kirby covers and his signature Fourth World characters prominently represented. Jack also plotted the stellar saga with scripter Joey Cavalieri providing dialogue, as Adrian Gonzales & Pablo Marcos illustrated a heady cosmic quest comprising numerous inconclusive battles between agents of Good and Evil.

Eschewing any preamble, we hurtle straight into action with ‘Power Beyond Price!’, as ultimate cosmic nemesis Darkseid despatches four Emissaries of Doom to destroy Earth’s superheroes. Sponsoring and empowering Lex Luthor, The Penguin, Brainiac and The Joker, the Dark God’s emissaries and their stooges jointly target Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Hawkman

The combat escalates in #2’s ‘Clash Against Chaos’ with the Man of Steel and Scarlet Speedster tackling Luthor, whilst Aquaman and Green Lantern scupper the Penguin. Meanwhile Dark Knight and Winged Wonder confront an astoundingly-enhanced Harlequin of Hate…

With Alan Kupperberg inking #3, an inconclusive outcome leads to a regrouping of evil and an attack by Brainiac on Paradise Island, as in ‘Amazons at War’ the Justice League rally until Superman is devolved into a brutal beast who attacks his former allies.

All-out battle ensues in ‘Earth’s Last Stand’ before King Kirby steps up to write and illustrate the fateful finale: a cosmos-shaking conclusion designated ‘Spaceship Earth – We’re All on It!’ (November 1984, with Greg Theakston suppling inks)…

A bombastic Super Powers Promotional Poster then leads into the second Super Powers miniseries, spanning September 1985 to February 1986.

Scripted by Paul Kupperberg, the Kirby/Theakston saga ‘Seeds of Doom!’ recounts how deadly Darkseid despatches techno-organic bombs to destroy Earth, a diabolical deed requiring practically every DC hero to unite to counter the threat.

With teams of Super Powers travelling to England, Rome, New York, Easter Island and Arizona the danger is magnified ‘When Past and Present Meet!’ as the seeds warp time and send Aquaman and Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz back to days of King Arthur

Super Powers #3 (November 1985) finds Red Tornado, Hawkman and Green Arrow plunged back 75 million years in ‘Time Upon Time Upon Time!’ even as Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are trapped in 1087 AD, battling stony-faced giant aliens on Easter Island.

Superman and Firestorm discover ‘There’s No Place Like Rome!’ as they battle Darkseid’s agent Steppenwolf in the first century whilst Batman, Robin and Flash visit a far-flung future where Earth is the new Apokolips in #5’s ‘Once Upon Tomorrow’.

Eventually Earth’s scattered but indomitable champions converge on Luna to spectacularly squash the schemes-within-schemes of ‘Darkseid of the Moon!’

Jack Kirby was and remains unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures comprise an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover can possibly resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s life’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene – and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations. Most tellingly, he is still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and there will never be another.
© 1984, 1985, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Doom Patrol volume 1: Crawling from the Wreckage


By Grant Morrison, Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, Scott Hanna & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-034-5

In 1986, mega-monster continuity reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths led to DC overwriting fifty years of continuity and revamping or reinventing their major properties. The massive spring cleaning exercise led to a swathe of bold, innovative titles and a fresh look at how comicbooks could be done.

A revival that began quite conventionally almost overnight became the one of company’s most radical enterprises. Despite having solid roots back in the Silver Age, Doom Patrol was a series that really dared to be different…

In 1963 DC/National Comics – without no prior warning – converted venerable anthology-mystery title My Greatest Adventure into a (remarkably fringe) superhero team-book with the 80th issue.

The debut tale introduced a startling squad of arguably disabled champions with their thematic roots still firmly planted in the B-movie monster films of the era which had for so long informed the tone and timbre of the parent title.

That aesthetic subtly shaped the progression of the strip – which took total control of the comic within months, prompting a title change to The Doom Patrol with issue #86 – and throughout its 6-year run, made the series one of the most eerily innovative and happily hip reads of that generation.

No traditional team of masked adventurers, the cast comprised a robot, a mummy and a pliable 50-foot woman in a mini-skirt, who joined forces with and were guided by a brusque, domineering, paraplegic mad scientist; each and all equally determined to validate themselves by fighting injustice their way…

Those damaged champions comprised competitive car racer Cliff Steele, but only after he had “died” in a horrific pile up, with his undamaged brain transplanted into a fantastic mechanical body… without his knowledge or permission…

Test pilot Larry Trainor had been trapped in an experimental stratospheric plane and become permanently and lethally radioactive, with the dubious benefit of gaining a semi-sentient energy avatar which could escape his body to perform incredible stunts for up to a minute at a time. To pass safely amongst men Trainor had to constantly wrap himself in specially-devised radiation-proof bandages.

Former movie star Rita Farr had been exposed to mysterious swamp gases which gave her the unpredictable and, at first, uncontrolled ability to shrink or grow to incredible sizes.

These outcasts were brought together by brilliant but enigmatic Renaissance Man Niles Caulder who, as The Chief, sought to mould marginalised misfits into a force for good. The wheelchair-bound savant directed the trio of solitary strangers in many terrifying missions as they slowly grew into a uniquely bonded family…

Even the way the series ended was radical for its time. Final issue Doom Patrol #121 (September/October 1968) saw three quarters of the team sacrifice their lives to save a village of inconsequential nobodies.

Over succeeding years clever backwriting revived them all, but to us readers at the time, that issue was shocking and incomprehensible.

In 1987, supplemented by new team-mates, the Doom Patrol – now based in Kansas City – returned to muddle along for 18 issues (and a few one-shots and specials), before again being devastated by death and living up to their perhaps ill-considered name. Following an invasion by an alliance of alien races, a “gene bomb” was detonated in Earth’s atmosphere which warped, erased or triggered the powers of many metahumans.

In the resulting fallout, the team suffered appalling losses…

Thus here, as neophyte Scottish import and unknown quantity Grant Morrison began his American writing career, Negative Man has been separated from his human host, Cliff Steele has suffered a psychological collapse, energy-caster Tempest has ceased using his abilities and teenaged trainee Lodestone lies in a coma…

This collection gathers Doom Patrol volume 2 #19-25 (the monthly issues from February-August 1989, as first collected in one of DC’s earliest trade paperbacks in 1992), wherein traditional team super-heroics were abruptly and ignominiously jettisoned in favour of Big Concept science, “sophisticated suspense” and macabre creeping terror.

A less celebrated but equally crucial component of the revolutionary change was penciller Richard Case, whose stylish, low-key interpretation of some of the (at that time) strangest scripts, situations and characters ever seen in mainstream comics imbued the wildest conceptions with plausible veracity. The illustrator was usually aided and abetted by the steady assured assistance of unflappable inker Scott Hanna.

Here, however, the opening chapter is inked by Carlos Garzón as an eerie, eponymous adventure begins with ‘Crawling from the Wreckage’ with a nightmare-wracked Cliff Steele receiving a visitor in the sanatorium where he voluntarily languishes.

Robotics wunderkind Dr Will Magnus – who created the Metal Men and had rebuilt and reconstructed Cliff from the scraps which survived the explosion which ended the first Doom Patrol – has come calling, eager to fix his former patient and repair this latest glitch…

As intense, obsessive Niles Caulder browbeats burned out Josh Clay (AKA Tempest) into staying with the team in a “non-combat” capacity, over at the Alamance Memorial Hospital Larry Trainor is recovering from major injuries and revelling in the fact that he is no longer a radioactive freak hosting a bizarre energy parasite.

The only down side is the cost: the death of his partners and protégés and the persistent comatose state of youthful new team-mate Rhea Jones, the magnetically-empowered Lodestone.

Larry’s complacency is shattered when he starts seeing the Negative force again, howling to be let back in…

As Magnus struggles to counsel Cliff, the energy apparition moves again on Larry, possessing both him and his attending doctor Eleanor Poole coldly remoulding them all into an eerie three-part, multiple-gendered amalgamated being calling itself Rebis

Magnus meanwhile plays his last card: with Robotman locked in self-pity and self-loathing, the master engineer switches tactics by appealing to Cliff’s heroic humanity and abiding compassion. He introduces the man of metal to fellow-patient Kay Challis: a young woman known to all as Crazy Jane.

Afflicted with multiple personality disorder, she manifests as (at least) 64 very different people, and since the gene bomb detonation, each one has manifested a different super power…

And elsewhere, a hideously burned crash victim who takes far too long to die drops a very strange black book and stops muttering the phrase “the Scissormen”. Federal agents on the scene resignedly realise this case needs the unique attention of Niles Caulder and his band of freaks…

Strange phenomena begin to proliferate globally in ‘Cautionary Tales’ (inked by Hanna) culminating in reports of many disappearances. Each vanished victim is marked by the silhouetted hole he or she leaves in reality…

As Caulder is cautiously recruiting hyper-intelligent, emotionally distant Rebis, across town Magnus cannot believe the change in Cliff. With Jane now his inseparable companion, Steele has regained much of his previous poise and lucidity: so much so, that Magnus offers to rebuild him a new body with sensors and feedback systems which will restore or approximate all the physical senses lost since becoming a brain trapped inside an ambulatory metal jail cell…

Apparently also back is Robotman’s gift for attracting trouble, as his evening walk with Jane is interrupted by a plummeting body screaming about “Scissormen”. With arcane abductions and cross-dimensional incursions mounting, the sanatorium becomes ground zero for packs of terrifying, gibberish-spouting, blade-handed invaders who attack staff and inmates, with only Jane’s arsenal of new abilities keeping her and Cliff out of the scything clutches and apparent extra-dimensional excisions…

All over the world bizarre phenomena and uncanny events mount…

More information – if not understanding – accrues with ‘Worlds in Collision’ as Kansas City begins to merge with a ghastly otherplace metropolis. Cliff and Alice battle macabre and unnatural foes all the way to the Doom Patrol’s new HQ in the Rhode Island mountain that was the original sanctuary of the Justice League of America.

Here, Caulder deduces their enemy is actualised metafiction stemming from a philosophical thought experiment that escaped its own boundaries to invade consensual reality but before he can formulate a response an army of Scissormen converge on their location and cut Josh out of existence. With no other choice and fed up with running, Cliff leads Rebis and Alice on a counterstrike into the heart of ‘The Ossuary’ to demolish the predatory city of Orqwith from within using brute force and pedantic logic…

With a semblance of normality restored just in time, the Doom Patrol settle in and welcome hirsute simian pre-teen Dorothy Spinner into the fold. Her uncontrolled ability to manifest monsters from her memory and imagination is only the most minor of annoyances, however, compared to the incursion of an ancient extradimensional hunter who abducts Lodestone’s comatose body from the hospital.

Thankfully, Crazy Jane has just the personality and powerset to follow ‘The Butterfly Collector’

Divining his many names and history of slaughtering women throughout history, she leads the team’s break in to ‘The House that Jack Built’ where the red-handed butcher’s many outrageous claims and sadistic acts prove ultimately no proof against the Patrol and a suddenly awake if not aware Lodestone…

This initial trade paperback (and digital) compilation concludes with a smaller-scaled but still potentially lethal tale of ‘Imaginary Friends’. Illustrated by Doug Braithwaite & Hanna it focuses on shy, meek little Dorothy Spinner and her growing relationship with Josh Clay. A key point in her life is almost derailed and turned to bloodbath when her burgeoning biology catastrophically interacts with her thought-materialisation power and a leftover (but-still-active) trophy from the JLA’s past…

Including a context-building Introduction from Tom Peyer and ‘A Word from the Author’ first seen in DP #20, this collection of strange brews were – and remain- a magnificent mission statement for the revitalised DC Universe, offering gritty, witty fancifully cohesive and contemporary stories that appealed not just to Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics but also lovers of wild concepts, beguiling metafiction and thrilling supercrime capers. As such they are still perfect fodder for today’s so-sophisticated, informed and ultimately sensation-hungry readers.
© 1987, 2005, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.